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Reviewed by:
  • United States Policy towards Indonesia in the Truman and Eisenhower Years
  • Matthew Jones
Andrew Roadnight , United States Policy towards Indonesia in the Truman and Eisenhower Years. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2002. xiv + 253 pp. $60.00.

One of the prime examples of the way successive U.S. administrations managed to alienate many of the new countries emerging from the shadow of colonialism after [End Page 163] World War II is provided by the downward trajectory of U.S. relations with Indonesia. U.S. policymakers were convinced that they had played a key role in securing Indonesian independence from Dutch rule in 1949, and they wanted to enlist the new state in Western efforts to deter Communist expansion. They also believed that Indonesia's rich natural resources would play a valuable role in the world capitalist system. Having failed to grasp the complexities of Indonesian politics that facilitated the growing influence of the Indonesian Communist Party (PKI), the U.S. government by 1957 had lost patience with the Guided Democracy of President Sukarno. U.S. Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) officials set out to subvert the Indonesian regime through covert action and support for rebellious elements in the Outer Island provinces. The disastrous collapse of this operation in April-May 1958 led to the adoption of an alternative posture of low-key backing for anti-Communist groups within the Indonesian Army's officer corps and the provision of modest amounts of military aid. By the end of Dwight Eisenhower's presidency in early 1961, U.S. policy was floundering. Washington's credibility was at a low ebb after the abortive intervention of 1957-1958, Sukarno was exasperated by Eisenhower's refusal to accept repeated invitations for a personal visit to Indonesia, the PKI was consolidating its important role in the political process while developing a mass base on Java, and Washington's "neutrality" over the future disposition of the Dutch-controlled territory of West Irian ran afoul of Indonesian nationalist sentiment. This, in sum, is the sorry tale of estrangement conveyed by Andrew Roadnight in his clear and straightforward analysis of U.S. relations with Indonesia from 1945 to 1960.

Roadnight has made extensive use of archival sources in the United States, Australia, and the United Kingdom to present a stern indictment of the shortcomings of U.S. policy throughout this period. He rightly stresses that, before Indonesia became independent, U.S. officials only slowly came to believe that they could rely on nationalist leaders in Jakarta to provide the stability needed to build an acceptable postwar order in East Asia. Washington's persistent bias toward its European allies and priorities was coupled, Roadnight shows, with cultural assumptions and prejudices about Indonesians (often pictured as child-like and naive) that underpinned U.S. attitudes. By the mid-1950s, the U.S. government was increasingly irritated by Indonesia's adoption of an active course of non-alignment. The situation was made worse by the inability of the United States to use aid as a lever to bring Jakarta into the Western camp. Roadnight marshals convincing evidence that John Foster Dulles was strongly attracted to the idea of a territorial break-up of Indonesia, if this would "save" the Outer Islands from the influence of the PKI on Java. Roadnight is particularly effective at highlighting the U.S. economic stake in Indonesia, as Washington tried to restructure the postwar world economy to suit its interests and needs.

This all amounts to a worthy and useful synthesis, though a few words of qualification are in order. First, there is little in the book that scholars of Western relations with Indonesia will find particularly revelatory. (Roadnight duly acknowledges his debt to Robert J. McMahon's earlier work on U.S. policy during the Truman administration [End Page 164] and to the 1995 book by Audrey R. Kahin and George McT. Kahin on the U.S. "debacle" in Indonesia in 1957-1958.) Space constraints undoubtedly limited the subjects that Roadnight was able to cover. Although he provides glimpses of Australian policy and attitudes in outline form (these are certainly valuable for the 1945-1949 phase), it would have been interesting if he had covered this...